‘The Enlightenment of Katzuo Nakamatsu’ by Augusto Higa Oshiro (Review)

It’s always nice when a book you know little about proves to be just what you need, and that’s the case with today’s choice, a novel I received a while back from Archipelago Books.  We’re heading off to Peru to spend some time with a man who’s arrived at a turning point in his life, one that sees himself turning inwards, and backwards in time.  While our story is set in South America, there is (as the title suggests) a strong Japanese element to our hero’s tale, along with a few ghosts of the past that will liven up the tale…

Augusto Higa Oshiro’s The Enlightenment of Katzuo Nakamatsu (translated by Jennifer Shyue) begins with the titular hero wandering around Lima on a lovely day, with flowers in full bloom.  It isn’t long, though, before everything takes a darker turn, and poor Katzuo’s head starts to spin, for where we see sunshine, he views things very differently:

He was fifty-eight, depleted, old, death was approaching indifferently, he couldn’t deny it, and because of some lack of foresight, perverse destiny or chance, his demise had been revealed to him, and he, impotent, ought to accept his lot without bitterness; when faced with that which could not be repaired, he found confrontation impossible.
pp.8/9 (Archipelago Books, 2023)

Almost in an instant, there’s a blinding realisation that death is on its way, sooner rather than later, and instead of attempting to shake the mood off, he decides it’s best to meet his fate head-on.

So, with Katzuo convinced that his time is limited, his life undergoes major changes.  His dismissal from his university post seems so timely that, apart from some token objections, he just lets it go.  It isn’t long before he’s roaming the streets, no longer concerned about appearances, and much of his time is now spent withdrawing inside his mind.  It’s here that he goes back to his roots, haunted, in more ways than one, by his past – and that of his people.

Higa Oshiro’s work is short, but memorable, and from the first page, the writing is an assault on the senses.  Sentence by sentence, the writer drags the reader into Katzuo’s world, showing us a man forced to evaluate his life, and not really liking what he finds.  It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this is unlikely to be a book with a happy ending, but it’s the how, not the what, of Katzuo’s story that makes it all so enjoyable.

In many ways, the work is one of preparing for death, and of one man’s rapid disintegration.  He initially observes certain formalities (such as taking a trip to the cemetery to bid farewell to his dead wife and parents), but there are also some slightly more unusual decisions, like borrowing a gun from a friend.  Eventually, though, the tired old man decides to take to the streets, with his nocturnal ramblings taking him, and us, deeper and deeper into into the city’s underworld.

This aspect of the book leads us through Lima, shown as a city in decline, increasingly riven by gang warfare.  We’re led through the awful traffic, the ever-present noise and the crumbling old buildings.  At the end of these walks, Katzuo inevitably finds his way into rather insalubrious quarters, sitting quietly in dark corners of sleazy bars and clubs, fascinated by the people he finds there.

The novel is most powerful, and effective, in its portrayal of a man whose time seems to be up, caught unawares by the reality of his mortality.  A typical example comes when he sits watching some teenagers playing football:

It was his old nosy habit, marveling at their plump flesh and those boyish impulses, at what was no longer his to savour; those vigorous games, the endless hurtling around.  He felt the impotence of his big old catapulting body, which would not stop oozing odors, dreary on a park bench. (p.25)

However, it’s not just the regrets about his ageing body that preoccupy him, but also a sudden awareness of all the work he had planned to do, which is now unlikely.  He mourns all the books he hasn’t written, and the research projects that remain incomplete, possibly for good.

Quite apart from the usual issues of old age, Higa Oshiro’s novel also deals with something more specific, namely Katzuo’s background as a nisei (second-generation) Japanese.  As well as musing on how his ancestry has affected his character and behaviour, he begins to delve into history.  He’s haunted by images of the first generation of Japanese arrivals in Peru, his father among them, and Katzuo’s own story is intertwined with tales of discrimination and abuse, such as the harsh treatment meted out to the immigrants during the Second Wold War.  Despite his own issues, Katzuo is unable to get these tales out of his mind, and they contribute to his worsening downward spiral.

It’s all cleverly done, told in a detached manner.  Katzuo is seen from a slight distance, with the reason for this becoming clear late in the piece.  Even though it’s all wrapped up in less than a hundred pages, this certainly isn’t a book to rush through.  With the work marked by lengthy sentences, Higa Oshiro and Shyue demand concentration from the reader, an endeavour that is well worth the effort.

Overall, The Enlightenment of Katzuo Nakamatsu is an intriguing, fascinating story of a man coming to grips with the fact that his life is drawing to a close, and that his body is giving up:

A sudden explosion, a discharge of emotion, muddled blinking, the wobbling old body, legs disjointed, despondent before the abyss and the utter darkness.  He had to sit down on a bench, Katzuo seemed to shrink, he felt ashamed, those strolls, his very life, the books he had loved, everything settled into his emptiness, like it had never existed, like there was no justification, for him, for his body, for his dreams, for anything at all. (p.44)

Yet despite these issues, partly by engaging with the past, Katzuo manages to find a little peace, which is, perhaps, the writer’s message to all of us approaching our later years.  It’s going to be hard to accept that it’s all downhill from here, so anything we can do to find some enlightenment will go a long way towards easing the pain…


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